The Best Days of the 2023 Whitetail Rut
Our predictions are in. Here are the seven days you absolutely must be in the deer woods this season
It’s that time again. No, it’s not the rut—not yet. But it is time to start thinking about the rut, and planning for the rut, and getting excited to hit the November whitetail woods. It’s like the long run-up the NFL season. Everyone is so pumped for what’s coming they start talking about it weeks before the preseason even begins. And they start making predictions. Well, the annual whitetail rut is no different—and our predictions are in.
We all know how good the rut can be—that if you hit it right you watch bucks and does practically ricochetting nonstop through the timber. It can be the absolute best chance you’ll have all year to tag the kind of buck that’ll force you to rearrange the trophy mounts on your wall. But the promise of incredible action is no guarantee. The whitetail’s annual breeding period is a dynamic and fickle thing. When it’s rocking, it’s like bucks are on parade in front of your tree stand, complete with fights and chase scenes. When it’s slow, you might see nothing more than a lone lost-looking fawn all day. So, you need to know the best times to be in the woods, because year in and year out, some days are better than others.
To that end, I been talking to the country’s top deer guides and biologist and pouring over moon guides and more to help you get into the woods on the right days this fall. So, here, based on my own 40-plus years of obsessive deer hunting, the advice of other experts, and a little voodoo, are the seven best days of the 2023 whitetail rut—a week’s worth of dates when you’ve just got to be out there.
Best Day of the Rut No. 1: October 18
Call me crazy, as this is the earliest date I’ve ever picked as a Best Day, but hear me out. About 20 years ago, I was slipping into an oak flat on a mid-October morning, intent on killing a fall gobbler. After settling by a massive white oak to listen for birds at fly-down, I heard something crunching through the leaves behind me. I peeked over my shoulder and met the gaze of a huge buck that returned my stare for a second, then wheeled and ran. After a little speed scouting, I discovered that the big 10-point was running a well-established scrape line, in full daylight no less.
It was no fluke encounter, either. Over the years, I can think of at least a half-dozen mature bucks that I’ve seen during the mid-October period moving well into the morning, working rub and/or scrape lines. When you think about this action it makes perfect sense. The peak of the breeding period is typically mid-November, and it’s not unusual for a few early-cycling does to come into estrous now and jump-starting rutting activity by several weeks.
This flash of mid-October action isn’t on a whole lot of hunters’ radar, but it should be. I’ll know this, I’ll won’t be turkey hunting on the 18th. I’ll be trying to intercept one of these bucks. And really, really like turkey hunting.
Best Day of the Rut No. 2: October 31
After going out on a limb with my first Best Day pick, I’m sticking with chalk for Number Two. Halloween is not only a well-recognized hot time to get on a buck in the late pre-rut, it’s just a personal favorite. I’ve seen some epic buck activity and shared a lot of success with friends and colleagues on this day over the years.
Halloween also lies at or near the end of what I’ve often referred to as “scrape week,” a seven to 10-day period when bucks are most apt to make daylight visits to scrapes. The best part about this period is that very few bucks are straying from their home ranges yet, so this activity typically takes place near core areas; relatively small (80-100 acres) chunks of real estate where bucks spend most of their time. While I remain convinced that September is the best time to kill a whopper buck you know well, scrape week comes in a close second. Plus, year after year it seems, Halloween is just eerily good (sorry). If it’s good enough, you won’t even need November.
Best Day of the Rut No. 3: November 1
Back-to-back Best Days? Yup, and there’s good reason that. When things start really popping, why leave the woods? I found a fawn this past spring (May 20 to be exact), and by back-dating the days-old deer, I realized its mama had conceived on or about November 1, 2022. This conception date definitely precedes the understood breeding peak in our area, but that’s hardly unusual. And these early-popping females can send pre-rut activity into the stratosphere.
Bucks have been primed for breeding and itching to go for weeks; now throw the scent of an estrous doe (and the resultant sounds of grunting, chasing, and possibly fighting) into the mix and things can get super hot in a hurry. Take a breather at your own risk this time of year, as only a few hours can make the action meter go into the red. I still consider this the tail end of the late pre-rut, with bucks remaining largely faithful to their familiar haunts but ramping up daytime movement to a level not seen since last fall.
Best Day of the Rut No. 4: November 4
What most hunters think of as the peak of the rut is not the actual breeding peak but rather the seeking-and-chasing activity that has bucks bombing across the landscape in hot pursuit of does. Whatever you call it, it’s a time when you want to be on stand. While many of the does being chased are several days away from estrous, bucks don’t care. They seem to think that by sheer determination, they can make things happen. We’re in the peak of that activity in most areas of whitetail range right now and if you want to catch it, this is the day. Sleep in and you could miss all the fun.
Opinions are a bit divided on the best way to hunt this day. Since bucks are covering a lot of ground, grinding it out on stand for hours in a terrain funnel makes sense. But let’s face it, some of us don’t have many (or any) all-day sits in us and while this hunting method can definitely result in a tagged buck, it can be mind-numbing. Splitting long vigils between two good spots can relieve boredom and still put you on a great buck. Pop into a morning stand near a doe bedding area as long as you can stand it, then grab lunch before sliding into a stand overlooking a top food source, and you’ll be into bucks.
Overall Best Day of the 2023 Rut: November 15
I’ve long maintained that there are always two ruts happening each fall; the rut that’s happening and the rut we see. The former, of course, is simple biology. That fawns are born at roughly the same times each spring is proof positive that the rut happened—and happens about the same time each fall. This is important to remember, because every so often I hear a frustrated hunter lament “the rut didn’t happen this year.” But that an observation based solely on personal experience afield. Obviously no matter how badly our season sucked, the rut occurred. Whether it happened at night, over the next hill, or in fits and starts of activity you missed.
The rut we see is pretty self explanatory. We all have those days where the woods and fields explode with buck activity. But in some ways—especially as it pertains to predicting when to be in the woods—the rut we see is more important for one simple reason: It reflects the rut activity we as hunters can actually take advantage of; that is, daytime activity.
In addition to keeping journal and talking to guides and other experts, I keep a pretty extensive library of trail cam pics that feature nice bucks, and over the last bunch of years, the period on or around November 15 has stood out when it come to bucks moving between sunup and sundown. My theory is that it’s combination of cooler weather, coupled with a significant percentage of mature bucks finally shaking free from their first successful breedings. While I love those first few days of November as much as anyone and will do my best to not to miss them, if I had to pick one time for my best chance for a big-rut-buck encounter, I’m going with mid-month every time, because that’s the rut I see.
Best Day of the Rut No. 6: November 26
As we approach the end of the Magic Month, it’s easy to let our collective guard down a bit. I mean, we’ve been at this for weeks, the weathers getting colder, and for the truly lost, there might even be football playoffs to watch. But try to hang in there, because there is a lot to love about late November.
Rutting activity is definitely still happening. While some of the junior bucks are resting up and licking their wounds, the big guys are still going strong, making this one of the best times to get on one of the truly mature bucks in your area. Also, gun seasons are open across much of whitetail range by now. While some feel hunting pressure hurts their chances, I take the opposite view; I cut my deer hunter’s teeth in one of Wisconsin’s most high-pressured counties, and I learned two things in a hurry; pressure makes bucks (even those not interested in rutting) move, and if I was waiting close to where they went in response to that pressure, I stood a good chance of success.
Finally, there are sentimental reasons for hunting now. It’s the Thanksgiving holiday, and I always associate that four-day weekend with increased opportunity to hunt with friends and family. And one of those guys will be my dad, who’s celebrating his 94th birthday today and since this will mark our 51st year of deer hunting together, I’ll be in the timber.
Best Day of the Rut No. 7: December 14
If I had to pick my favorite Best Day to hunt, I’d go with this one. I’ll stick with November 15th as my overall best day to kill a buck. But I tend to like the December hunts for other reasons than filling a tag. For starters, it’s deer hunting at its most basic; find the food and you’ll find the deer. And in my area the food has been whittled down to a handful of choices—food plots, waste grain that hasn’t been plowed under, and acorns or natural browse. Typically there’s some snow and cold now, so there’s some urgency for deer to feed. And I’m often alone, as most hunters are either tagged out or burned out, leaving the December woods us diehards.
Now, you may be thinking: What does any of that have to do with this being a Best Day of the Rut? Well, because almost one month earlier was the verified breeding peak across much of whitetail range. That means a new flush of does–either mature animals that got missed in the main event or fawns entering their first cycle—are coming into estrous and will be getting the attention of any bucks in the neighborhood. I still run across guys who dismiss this secondary rutting activity. and I just smile and nod and pretend to agree. The more fun for me. And for you if you can stick out the final Best Day.